- Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database
Much has been written about the transformative impact of digital technology on contemporary cinema. But while digital imaging—from the large-scale visual effects spectacles of the studio blockbuster to low-end vector-based animation—may be comfortably positioned on a continuum with other "revolutionary" imaging technologies of the previous century (Technicolor, 3-D, high-definition video, and so on), the Soft Cinema media-processing engine created by media theorist Lev Manovich and designer Andreas Kratky proposes a somewhat more radical intervention into the evolution of cinema as a storytelling apparatus. Indeed, as Manovich notes in his introduction to the recently released DVD Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database, conventional cinema is anachronistically [End Page 136] rooted in the logic of the industrial revolution and its assembly-line mentality for delivering sequential narratives. By contrast, Soft Cinema emerges more or less organically from the logic of the computer database and the revised patterns of production/consumption that characterize the digital age. Where Soft Cinema could previously be experienced only as a gallery installation, the DVD presents three short projects created using the Soft Cinema engine: two by Manovich (Mission to Earth and Texas) and one by Kratky (Absences).
Although computational structures in film and video long pre-date the proliferation of digital technology, a computer-driven apparatus such as Soft Cinema allows artists and viewers to explore the intersection of database and narrative on a literal—rather than merely metaphorical—level. In his theoretical writings, Manovich has argued persuasively that, in our present historical moment, the logic of the computer has become the logic of culture at large, concluding that the database should be accorded the stature of a symbolic form on the order of cinema or the novel. For Manovich, there is something more at stake than narrative in creating database art. Soft Cinema attempts, with varying degrees of success, to question the ways computers and software-based art can be used to represent contemporary "distributed subjectivity," a project that Manovich likens to the literary modernist projects of Marcel Proust and James Joyce. With our "selves" continually scattered across multiple government and corporate databases and surveillance systems, Manovich looks to the networked computer as a more revealing metaphor for understanding contemporary identity than the linear, cinematic narrative.
A parallel effort may be found in the genre of the interactive database narrative, particularly the remarkable body of work created during the past decade by Marsha Kinder's Labyrinth project. Prior to designing and programming Soft Cinema, Kratky served as interface designer for two Labyrinth projects: Norman Klein's Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles 1920–1986 and Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California. Although Labyrinth has pursued by far the most sustained artistic and critical engagement with questions related to the intersection of cinematic narrative and digital technology, its method is best understood in terms of the logic of the search engine rather than a pure computational structure. In interactive narratives, a user makes choices or expresses curiosities that result in (sometimes unexpected) variations in narrative combination. In contrast, Soft Cinema makes use of a mode of dynamic, real-time image assembly in which viewers offer no input beyond the initial selection of which piece to view. Once a project is launched, the Soft Cinema engine executes a series of choices, guided by carefully designed parameters and rules (algorithms), in order to deliver a narrative experience that varies each time it is played. The result is a kind of "ambient narrative" in which narrative meaning and aesthetic coherence must be discerned or constructed by the viewer.
Two particularly interesting effects are at work in Soft Cinema. First, the project involves the creation not only of a discrete artwork or series of artworks but a media processing engine that could, in theory, be applied to any existing media database. This merging of databases with interpretive tools for transforming their significance resonates widely across a variety of cultural practices, from Brian Eno's experiments with algorithmic music composition in the mid-1990s to Florian Thalhofer's interactive narrative...